CHARLOTTE — A 50-meter specialist, he's not.
Michael Phelps got a dose of reality Saturday morning in the 50-meter freestyle, an event he entered mainly to work on a new straight-arm stroke he'll use in the 100 free.
The swimmer who won eight gold medals in Beijing was assigned to Lane 1 in the third of 11 heats -- surely the first time in years he's gone that early -- and lived down to expectations by touching in 23.24 seconds, far off Frederick Bousquet's world record of 20.94.
"I don't even know how to swim the 50. I don't really know what to do," Phelps said. "After watching the video, I saw some things I can change. My head position the first 25 was not too good. I was too deep. I had a giant wave over my head."
Phelps' time was eighth-fastest of the preliminaries, which would have been good enough to get him the last spot in the evening final. But he quickly scratched, sticking to his plan to focus on the 100 backstroke.
That should be quite a race. Less than an hour after finishing the 50 free, Phelps returned to race alongside world record-holder Aaron Peirsol in the prelims of the 100 back, neither of them wanting to show their hands too much.
Peirsol touched in 55.56 to earn the top spot for the final. Phelps was right behind at 55.61, meaning they'll be side-by-side again in the evening. Two-time Olympian Ryan Lochte also advanced with the fifth-best time (55.98).
"It'll be fun racing against him and Lochte," Phelps said. "It's definitely going to be a good race. I'm sure we'll see some fast times."
Ditto for the 50 free, swimming's most furious, chaotic event. George Bovell was the surprising top qualifier at 21.88, ahead of U.S. Olympian and former N.C. State star Cullen Jones (22.22) and Bousquet (22.37), a last-minute addition to the field.
"I'm just here for the racing and to do as good as I can," the Frenchman said.
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, keeps insisting there are no plans to make the 50 free a regular part of his program, even though the winningest Olympian ever plans to try some new events over the next three years leading up to the London Games.
"Michael just doesn't really have that explosive power you need to do a great 50," Bowman said. "We're just using it for the 100."
Phelps showed his inexperience in the 50 by staying underwater far longer than anyone else in the one-lap race. Getting on top of the water quickly is a key in the 50.
While Phelps keeps insisting that he's not a sprinter, Bousquet isn't so sure.
"The guy can call himself a sprinter, that's for sure," the Frenchman said. "I'm very happy, very excited that he decided to pay more attention to the 50 and the 100. It can be very positive for us to make progress as well. He's going to help us all go faster."
Phelps finished second in his heat, providing quite a thrill to the guy who touched ahead of him, little-known Jared White.
"Yeah, I'll remember it," White said.